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World War II: Interview with First Lieutenant Charles Schneider

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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When First Lieutenant Charles Schneider shipped over to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in the fall of 1944, he expected to see his share of blood and guts. But in the normal course of events he had every expectation of returning home at war's end wearing both his dog tags.

Schneider was a medical doctor with the 189th General Hospital, and in most instances general hospitals were well behind the lines, threatened only by an occasional stray bomb. Schneider could look forward to long hours, backbreaking fatigue, stress and distress, but not life-threatening danger.

Things often don't work out as planned, however, especially during a war. Instead of having a cozy niche with the 189th General, Schneider wound up as a battalion surgeon with the 80th Infantry Division, as the replacement for a doctor who had had a combat-induced nervous breakdown. In that capacity, he saw plenty of war close-up, from the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 to the Allied victory in Europe in May 1945. He would be shelled and shot at, wander into enemy-held territory, and twice–though unarmed–have German troops surrender to him.

In the warm comfort of his Birmingham, Ala., home, the now retired Dr. Schneider recalled what it was like to be bitterly cold and in almost constant danger. Lynn Grisard Fullman transcribed those memories for Military History Magazine.

Military History: How did the wounded arrive?

Schneider: The wounded, including civilians and prisoners of war, were brought in by truck and by trains that ran along a line not far from where the temporary hospital was set up.

MH: What was your duty then?

Schneider: As the medical officers were being assigned duties, no one wanted to do neurosurgery. Because I had recently completed a three-month rotation in neurosurgery at the University of Virginia under the renowned Dr. Gayle Crutchfield, I was handed the job.

MH: What was it like?

Schneider: I had to do the best I could with patients with nervous-system injuries that were pretty nasty. Head injuries were the worst. I cared for a number of POWs (prisoners of war) with severe head and nerve injuries. Most of them were kept in a single tent that held 25 to 30 neurosurgical patients.

MH: Were any of the injured moved?

Schneider: The bad neurosurgical American casualties were rather rapidly transported across the Channel to British hospitals. But the order had come that POWs could not be moved any farther than the General Hospital Unit in France–so we were doing the best we could. Fortunately, though, we didn't get the casualty load you get when active battle is going on close by.

MH: Did most of the patients recover?

Schneider: The survival rate wasn't too good as far as our neurosurgical problems were concerned.

MH: What did you treat most often?

Schneider: The most common injury I treated was one in which the skull had been blasted open and part of the brain was sticking out. It's called fungus cerebri. Those patients never did well; there just wasn't much I could do for them.

MH: What was the worst medical problem you saw?

Schneider: It probably was an American soldier who was assigned to a railroad unit. He had been walking on top of a train when it came to a short tunnel, and he didn't realize how low the clearance was. When we saw him, he had a fracture that went through the skull's frontal area just above the nose, and he had spinal fluid leaking from his nose. To complicate things, he developed severe meningitis. He was unconscious and had severe rigidity in his back because of spinal canal inflammation caused by pneumococcus meningitis.

MH: Could you do anything for him?

Schneider: Actually, yes. I'd read about a new drug, and we were getting it in small quantities from the United States. I didn't know if it would work, but I treated him, and within 24 to 36 hours he was conscious and recovering. The new drug was penicillin.

MH: What do you remember about the start of the Battle of the Bulge?

Schneider: The German counteroffensive began on December 16, 1944, not long after I arrived in France. The Germans crashed through our lines at the most unexpected place and time. It was in the dead of winter, the weather was horrible, snow was all over the ground, and they just blew through our lines like a dose of salts.

MH: How did the battle affect you?

Schneider: I remember, right before Christmas, being called to the tent of the hospital unit's commanding officer (CO), who told me I would leave the next morning. He explained that the command had come down to all the medical units, requiring them to send every general duty medical officer to a combat unit.

MH: How much notice did you receive?

Schneider: Just one night. My CO told me that the next morning I would go to an airstrip where I would board a Douglas C-47 transport plane that would take me to Paris, then to my new unit.

MH: Was there time for goodbyes?

Schneider: That night I had to get my duffel bag packed, but first I went back by the tent where I had patients, many of them Germans, who told me to come back later that night. They had been planning to give me a little something for Christmas, so they went ahead and gave me a program of singing and a plaque one of the German prisoners had carved using a pen knife and a piece of wood taken from a packing case. All these years, I've kept that tiny plaque on my office wall. It shows a woman looking through a window at the shining star of Bethlehem; and in the bottom corner, it says, simply, 'Weihnachten 1944." Weihnachten means Christmas in German.

MH: Where did you go next?

Schneider: After spending a few days in Paris, I took the train from Paris to Metz, where the rear command of the 80th Infantry Division of the Third Army was located. I was to join the 80th Division to replace a medical officer.

MH: How was it when you arrived?

Schneider: Under blackout precautions, I got to the railroad station and stood in the cold and snow until finally a sergeant loomed out of the blackness and said he would take me to headquarters. The next morning, another fellow and I got in a staff car and headed to Luxembourg City. The main road from Metz was jammed with Third Army armored vehicles. Fortunately, we were riding in a 4-wheel-drive staff car, and the driver would take the car off the road. We'd slosh through the fields and snow while all around us the tanks were slipping and sliding off the road. By the time we reached Luxembourg, it was the middle of the night–right in the middle of a German air raid. It was so dark, all you could see were flashes of anti-aircraft fire.

MH: Other than that, how was your welcome?

Schneider: When I got to the forward headquarters, they said, We've been waiting for you." It seems the medical officer I was relieving had already been taken away. He was a mental casualty, and I think he ended up cutting out paper dolls somewhere. I was dead tired. It was dark, and all I wanted right then was to sleep, but they told me that an ambulance was going to take me to the collecting station. We had to travel at night because it was just too dangerous to move about in the daylight.

MH: And the ambulance ride?

Schneider: This bearded character drove the ambulance, which had no full headlights, only cat eyes (blackout lights), so only a little bit of light could leak through. Everything was covered with snow. We traveled several hours that night, heading north out of Luxembourg City. I started hearing shellfire; then there was a really loud boom. The driver said, That's all right, that's going out." I didn't know what he meant until we came to a point where he stopped in the woods. When I asked why we were stopping, he told me to watch the intersection up ahead, about 500 yards. You wait and you'll see," he said. Then, all of a sudden we heard crack, crack, crack! Now that," he said, is coming in!" Then he put the jeep into gear. My God, don't go up there," I pleaded, but he explained that what we'd just heard was interdictory fire, Germans firing at the crossroad at intervals. You don't want to be there when they fire, but once they've fired, you scoot across.

MH: Then what happened?

Schneider: I had orders to be the battalion surgeon for the 905th Field Artillery Battalion, attached to the 80th Division. I stayed with them until war's end. They were deployed in the mountains to support infantry units. That area was the U.S. spearhead into the base of the German offensive. We received fire from three different directions and had to watch out for our own artillery fire.

MH: For a doctor like yourself, was it very dangerous?

Schneider: My work wasn't as dangerous as it would have been with an infantry battalion. Our field artillery consisted of 105mm howitzers. Our battalion had a mortar company of 4.2-inch mortars attached to it. As the medical officer, I was responsible for the care of battalion personnel as well as the attached unit–wounds, frozen feet, illness and the like. If anyone was hurt too badly, I would make arrangements for their evacuation to a medical unit.

MH: How did you establish a place to care for patients?

Schneider: As the medical officer, I had to go ahead of the unit and set up a forward aid station. That's when I always got into trouble. I remember one time when I was responsible for a 4.2 mortar company. It was behind a hill shooting at the enemy, and I had a heck of a time finding it. I took my driver and jeep and headed in the direction we thought they were. We came to this little town named Gholsdorf, where we were supposed to have advance units. I found only one man, a forward artillery observer who was in a church steeple, and he suggested the road I should take. Figuring he knew what he was talking about, I took the road toward Buckholz, a town on the ridge of a mountain. That day, everything was covered with snow, and it was quiet. So off we headed down a little road that went up over a rise, then started down again. All of a sudden, out from behind a small knoll came a huge German Tiger tank, headed straight for us. There was a red cross on the jeep and my helmet, but in this war, there were no immunities and we knew it. The tank pointed its 88mm cannon at us, and I stood up with my hands above my head. About that time, the German in the tank called to us, in German, Where are you going?" Fortunately, because I had studied German in school and had spent a summer in Germany, I could talk to him, and I think that may have saved my life. As the cannon aimed straight at my face, I managed to explain that I was looking for my unit. They aren't up here, and you'd better get out of here fast," he told me. I thanked him, then told the driver to get the hell out of there. He whipped that jeep around and we sped away.

MH: Were any other Americans around?

Schneider: As we were going back, we saw something move on the side of the road and there in a foxhole was a GI, peering out and wearing a helmet camouflaged with white. He explained that he was the forward observer for his infantry company and that the area where I'd been had not yet been taken. I told him about the Tiger tank around the curve and he said, Yeah, we've been having some tanks up there, and I've been staying in my hole." I got back to town and went to the observer I had talked to earlier in the church steeple. When he heard what we had run into, he said we'd been lucky. Later, I heard that the unit that was supposed to take the next town had one jeep of infantrymen go up that road, and, right where I had been, they were hit by an 88mm shell. It killed them all just a couple of hours after I had been there.

MH: Did you find your company?

Schneider: I found my mortar company defiladed behind a steep hill, intermittently firing 4.2 mortars. Right after I got there, while talking to a lieutenant, we heard a thump on top of the hill and saw something plowing through the snow. Duck," he warned me. It was a German mortar shell that hadn't exploded because the hill was so steep. We dove into a foxhole, and that thing went slithering by, swish, right through the snow, but it didn't explode.

MH: Were the Germans accurate shots?

Schneider: The Germans were very good with mortars. I remember once when they had knocked out a bridge that was our only way to advance. At night, an engineering company threw a plank bridge across the ravine. After it was across, the first thing we did was to put a tank destroyer across the bridge to protect it. The guy protecting the bridge had his hatch open, and doggone if the Germans didn't lob a mortar shell right down that hatch. I wasn't there, but I saw the destroyed gun when I came through.

MH: Did you ever see another Tiger tank?

Schneider: Believe it not, yes. After the Bulge was pushed back, I was going to check on a unit and got on a wrong road. We were traveling a winding, narrow dirt track when I turned and saw a Tiger. The tank commander, who was probably as surprised as I was, turned that big gun at me and asked what I was doing. I told him that I was lost and that I was a doctor. Probably skeptical of my answers, he came right over to us and searched the jeep while another man kept a gun pointed at me. When he saw we had no weapons, he allowed us to leave.

MH: What do you remember about the Siegfried Line?

Schneider: We crossed the Siegfried at the Saar River in January 1945. The line was fortified with interlocking concrete pillboxes, disguised and heavily armed. When we crossed the river it was winter, but already some snow was melting and the river was high. Across the river the Germans had it well defended, with crisscrossed barbed wire on steel stakes stuck into the shallow waters. You would have to pick your way through it, which would expose you to fire coming from bunkers in the hills. Our infantry tried to get men across in assault boats, but they were repulsed every time and suffered heavy losses.

MH: What stands out most when you remember that line?

Schneider: It was the area where I had many men suffering from trench foot and frozen feet. That was the only time I met and saw General George S. Patton close up. He came up with the commanders of our regiment close to the Saar River. I heard him talking, outlining what we had to do next, but the one thing I remember him saying was, I don't give a damn how many truckloads of dog tags I've got to send back, I want a bridgehead over that river." Of course, he cursed something awful. He was all decked out with ivory-handled revolvers. He was something, yelling at the officers and just giving them hell.

MH: Did his tactics work?

Schneider: We did get a bridgehead and sent our infantry units across the river, but only with the help of several extra units of heavy artillery. I received notice that we were going to move our artillery battalion across the river, and again I had to go across and find a suitable area for an aid station.

MH: Did that go smoothly?

Schneider: Not exactly. My driver and I headed out on a very nice, pretty day when the sun was out, and we felt comfortable because our airplanes could navigate the clear skies. The day took an about-face, though, when we came to a crossroads, and I decided to go straight ahead rather than to go deeper into Germany. I went left, staying closer to the area where I knew we were entrenched on the other side of the river. We came to one little valley where I saw two buildings I was interested in for our aid station; and inside one of the buildings, I saw all kinds of ammunition and supplies stacked against the wall. When I saw the grenades, ammunition, guns and chests of medical equipment, I knew the Germans wouldn't have run off and left their supplies unless they had been surprised.

MH: I assume that your discovery was the calm before the storm?

Schneider: You bet it was. I looked up the hill, which had a section of forest beginning abruptly on one side and a field on the other side. In the field I saw a cute little farmhouse, white and well kept. I knew it would make a good aid station and would be comfortable–better than what we had been having.

MH: So, you went to it?

Schneider: Yes, but because it was so muddy, I told the driver to stay where he was and I started to walk up the rutted road to the house, about 300 yards uphill. I got just a little way up and looked down and saw these funny-looking things. Then, it dawned on me. Those were anti-personnel mines in the ruts of the road, right where we would have driven. But, because I had stayed out of the ruts, trying to avoid the mud, I hadn't stepped on one. By the time I noticed the mines, I heard a bullet zing right over my head, and I realized somebody was firing at me. I looked again, and knew I was not looking at greenery but at a big, concrete pillbox, covered with camouflage nets.

MH: How did you get away?

Schneider: The guy had fired only once, apparently as a warning to tell me to get out. If he had wanted to, he could have killed me, because I wasn't more than 200 feet from the pillbox. I went back and told the driver to get in the jeep. Then I told him, Let's get out of here. We had gone less than half a mile when I saw a skirmish line of American soldiers coming toward us. A second lieutenant came up to me and said, Hey, Doc, what were you doing up there? We haven't taken this area yet." He asked me what I had seen. I told him he could expect a big problem up ahead.

MH: Did you ever hear what happened in the area after that?

Schneider: I heard later that the Americans had to dig in and didn't take that pillbox until a day or so later, when they finally got a 155mm self-propelled gun and shot into the pillbox.

MH: What was the most horrible injury you tended?

Schneider: As a battalion surgeon, I never did any definitive surgery because that was always done in a medical unit farther in the rear. But, during the Battle of the Bulge, a soldier was shot in the thigh by a 20mm shell, and it blew off his leg at the upper thigh. The leg was hanging on by just a piece of skin and, without anesthesia, I had to take that leg off to get him onto a jeep to evacuate him. All I could do was give him some plasma and morphine and get him evacuated to a clearing station for better treatment.

MH: What became of him?

Schneider: I never had any follow-up on my patients. We were moving all the time, and I was never able to get back to my collecting company that evaluated our wounded.

MH: Did you have other close calls during the Bulge?

Schneider: Once, I was in Luxembourg, going along a dirt road dug out on the side of a mountain, when a German 88 shell hit the road a couple of hundred yards ahead of us. My driver, who fortunately was very well informed about battle, immediately swiveled that jeep off the road and down the embankment. We slid down about 20 to 30 feet and landed in a big snowdrift. All that time, German artillery shells were landing along the road. We knew what to expect, because the Germans usually threw six rounds of 88 shells at a time. So we sat in that drift, with the jeep still running while it was buried in the snow beneath us. Finally, when the firing stopped, my sergeant reached under the snow, put the jeep in low gear and started shaking it back and forth until finally we started moving forward. My golly, we gradually crept up the side of that bluff and back onto the road. That jeep was bent, but it never quit.

MH: Do you remember crossing the Rhine River?

Schneider: You don't forget something like that. I remember after we had made a hole through the line, we were pulled back for a short rest and were able to go to an area where we got showers. Then we crossed through the Siegfried Line and over to the Rhine. The Germans held the Remagen Bridge just north of us. Before our units got there, they had mined the bridge and were ready to blow it. But our forces managed to capture it, then sent a couple of squads who found and disabled most of the charges. After the bridge was taken, our division put up a pontoon bridge. We had gathered on the banks and were ready to go when they got the bridge across. We set off smoke canisters, encasing the whole area in smoke to keep us from being easy targets as we crossed. The smoke was so dense that after I crossed to the east side with my battalion I couldn't see but 10 or 15 feet in front of me. The orders were to get across as fast as we could and not to stop for anything. So that's exactly what we did, but when we came to a crossroads, my medical detachment took the wrong turn.

MH: How did you find your unit again?

Schneider: Although we had been blanketed in smoke, the sun was out and everything was quiet. Afraid to turn back to the pontoon bridge, we kept going until we came to a small river with a bridge that had been blown down. Although the end of the bridge had collapsed, the water looked shallow. I thought if I could get to the other side, we could drive up the small mountain that I saw in the distance. On a day so clear, I knew I could spot the other units from that vantage point. With that in mind, my driver and I left the others behind and went down to the knocked-out bridge that was on about a 30-degree angle going down. When we got to the other side, we went up a small, bald mountain that had several houses along the road on the top.

MH: Could you see from there?

Schneider: We pulled up there cautiously, but saw no activity. As we were going between the houses, there suddenly were these explosions, and the red tile started flying off the roofs next to us. At first, I couldn't understand what was happening.

MH: What was happening?

Schneider: I heard an awful roar and looked up to see a plane climbing. It had sweptback wings. I had never seen a plane going that fast before. Turns out, it was a Messerschmitt Me-262, one of the first German jets. It had come down and strafed us and was climbing up before we heard the shells coming down.

MH: Was that the only one?

Schneider: Oh, no. I looked up and saw another one coming right behind it. It was diving, and I could see the blinking lights of its 30mm cannons shooting at us. We slammed the jeep against the wall of the house and tumbled out, the driver on one side and I on the other. I scurried along the ground, pushed my foot through a ground-level window and fell into a basement to escape the shell fragments. From the dark basement, I heard the plane pulling out; then it grew silent as the planes sped away.

MH: Were you or the driver hurt?

Schneider: We were both fine, but the jeep had some holes in it–and I lost my only bottle of whiskey.

MH: Did you find your units?

Schneider: From the hill we could see our units moving, and knew what direction to go, so later that day, we found our battalion. Later, we turned north, and our division took Kassel before turning west toward Czechoslovakia and the Elbe River.

MH: Were things routine after that?

Schneider: Far from it. Another thing I won't ever forget happened after we took Kassel. One day, I was told the area to the east had been secured and to go with part of Headquarters Company to reconnoiter. We had gone 20 or 30 kilometers when we came to a crossroads. I took the left turn to check out that area while the two jeeploads of headquarters men went to the right.

MH: What did you find?

Schneider: The road led through an ornamental gate to a lovely medieval town with a wall surrounding it. On a hilltop, maybe a quarter of a mile from where we were, there was a really pretty house inside the walled city. Heading through the city's gates, we were shocked to see shops and sidewalks filled with civilians. At first, there appeared no evidence of war. Then, all of a sudden, I spotted German soldiers with guns, but, by now, we were inside the gates and there was no turning back. We drove ahead slowly, and from the sidewalk came a burly German sergeant. He commanded, in German, Stop." Then he asked where we were going.

MH: How did you answer him?

Schneider: I had to think fast, so I told him that we were looking for his commanding officer. The German said we would find him inside the house on the hill, so he jumped onto the hood of the jeep and escorted us to his commander.

MH: When you got to the command post, was his commander there?

Schneider: Sure was. We went up the hill to the house, which we could see was very old and had a courtyard with a cobblestone surface, and the sergeant jumped from the jeep and knocked on the door of the house. Out came a captain and a lieutenant.

MH: What was their reaction to your being there?

Schneider: They were amazed to see us and asked what we wanted. All I could think to say was that our men were closing in and that I had been asked to come and offer them the chance to surrender and avoid any more bloodshed. He just stared at me and the red crosses on my jeep and helmet, then turned to talk to the other officer. To me, he said, Our last report stated that the Americans were still over 50 kilometers away!" About that time, in the valley, there came the burst of a German burp gun, followed by the distinctive sound of American Browning automatic rifles (BAR). We couldn't have planned it any better if we'd tried. Here I was, trying to stay calm and knowing that we didn't have but a handful of men coming up behind us.

MH: So the Germans believed you?

Schneider: Yes. The captain blew a whistle, and about 150 or more men tumbled out with bazookas, light machine guns and an array of handguns. After they'd surrendered, I told the captain to keep his men there, and I'd go back to my unit to report they had surrendered and would send some men to take them as prisoners.

MH: And did you?

Schneider: We hightailed it out of there and met our guys going our way from the contested valley. I told the commanding officer that a bunch of Germans had surrendered and asked him to send a detachment to take them as prisoners. He said he didn't have enough men to send, so we just went on. To this day, I don't know what happened to that medieval village of Germans. Do you suppose they are still standing there waiting to be taken prisoner?

MH: Obviously that red cross was an angel that went with you into battle. But did you ever fire a gun during your time there?

Schneider: Once, during the Battle of the Bulge, I shot out of frustration, but not at the enemy. We had our aid station set up and all of a sudden, after the weather had cleared, one of our airplanes mistook us for Germans and came down to strafe us. There was a .30-caliber machine gun on the edge of the road, and as he turned around and came back, I jumped in, turned the machine gun on him, shot a few bursts of tracers and chased him away.

MH: So, that was the only time you shot?

Schneider: Well, there was a time when I was just target shooting the way I had on my high school's rifle team. But, it turned out, I wasn't just playing. One night, as our unit was going forward, it began to grow dark and we decided to stop for the night in a little town that had evacuated buildings. In the morning, just as it started to get light, I went outside and saw, stacked against the wall of the house where I'd slept, all kinds of German munitions, guns, rifles and grenades. It was obvious that someone had left there in a hurry. Since I'm a gun buff, I decided to shoot one of the guns. Besides, there was plenty of ammunition. I loaded the gun and put a couple of clips in my pocket; then, from the bottom of the hill behind the house, I aimed at a flat rock, about 300 yards behind the house. I got in a prone position and fired six rounds at the rock. When I began to look for another clip, I noticed activity all along the edge of the woods, and here came these German soldiers at me.

MH: Were they firing?

Schneider: Oh no, they had their arms up and were carrying their rifles. Apparently, we had scared them out of the houses when we had come in. They had gone in the woods and had spent the night there. When I started firing, they thought they had been spotted and were being shot at, so they all came out of the woods in a line. I stood up and yelled to them to drop their guns, and they did. Then I yelled to my sergeant to come help.

MH: How many were there?

Schneider: There were 13 of them. I counted, because I kept wondering if there were any more of them. Most were young guys, maybe 18 years old. They were really kids, and I felt sorry for them. They were very glad to surrender after their night in the woods.

MH: Where did you go after that impromptu German surrender?

Schneider: Our division went next into Austria, chasing the last German SS division. They had run out of gasoline, had abandoned most of their vehicles and were picking up the best horses on their way until they had become almost a mounted division. We finally subdued them and ended up with a bunch of nice horses that we quartered at a castle we had taken; and we did a lot of riding.

MH: Was there anything eventful about your time in Austria?

Schneider: Two things stand out. First, before the fighting had ended, I delivered a woman's baby by lantern light in the basement of a farmhouse. And then we took a town called Ebensee, located south of a beautiful lake. But otherwise it was anything but beautiful. Two miles away we found a concentration camp. Our combat unit liberated the camp, which was filled with both prisoners of war and political prisoners. We found a furnace there, filled with bones, and when we emptied a swimming pool, we found bodies all over the bottom.

MH: Wasn't the war coming to an end about that time?

Schneider: Yes, while we were in Austria, the war officially came to an end, and our unit subsequently went back to Germany. Austria, by treaty, was reserved for the Soviets. In retrospect, the war could have ended many weeks earlier. After Kassel fell, our division and combat team sped to the east through Erfurt, Weimar, Jena and finally to Limbach, near Chemnizt. Berlin to the north was only a couple days away. Our combat team could have taken Berlin easily then. But, again, it was reserved by Roosevelt for Josef Stalin and company.



This article was written by Lynn Grisard Fullman and originally published in the December 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!



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